(The Root) — The White House is facing another case of leaked information with the release on Wednesday of a document detailing the Obama administration's trade negotiations. Posted on the website of the consumer-rights advocacy group Public Citizen, the leaked document reveals that a proposed trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region would controversially give broader political power to multinational corporations.
The details come on the heels of other leaks that have plagued the Obama administration. The appearance in recent New York Times and Newsweek articles of classified national-security information regarding President Obama's input on a terrorist "kill list" and cyberattacks against Iran's nuclear program has spurred questions and criticism about White House policies. "They're intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) charged last week.
Although the White House denies leaking anything, last week Attorney General Eric Holder appointed two federal prosecutors to oversee FBI investigations into the alleged breaches. The investigations are likely to include scrutiny of White House officials. "Let me be very clear," Holder said before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "Our investigation will follow leads wherever they take us."
Liza Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, says that the Obama administration is in an awkward position.
"They can't really say that they're not concerned about the leaking of classified information, and this administration in particular has been very, very hard on unauthorized leaks — so it raises the specter of hypocrisy if it does not appear to be taking these instances very seriously," she told The Root. "But the reality is that administrations, for decades, have selectively released classified information to reporters as a matter of routine practice."
Goitein argued that while it is important to classify documents that could threaten national security, the government widely overclassifies information that poses no danger to national safety. "When you have entire programs that are matters of public knowledge — like the targeted-killing program — but that the government nonetheless classifies, you have a situation where the government can put its thumb on the scale of public opinion," she said. "They can release the information that makes it look good, and not release the information that is perhaps more mixed."
As for the federal investigations into the leaks, it's hard to say what will happen because leak cases are historically very hard to prosecute. "It's possible that these investigations will be a dead end," said Goitein. But she contended that the solution Congress should be seeking is not fewer leaks but more transparency in government activity.
"An informed citizenry is necessary to effective self-government, and yet we have increasing swaths of governmental activity that is off-limits to the public," said Goitein, adding that there are also security implications around excessive secrecy. "When documents are routinely improperly classified, then people in government who work with that information lose respect for the 'classified' label and are more willing to leak stuff. But maybe at some point what they leak is going to be truly sensitive information that should not be publically available. That's a real danger."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.